Over the last few weeks there’s been a lot of hand-wringing over the state of Facebook, the impact of Facebook, and the future of Facebook; as I wrote in a previous post, its business model is increasingly being exposed as bullshit. And, as Tim Cook correctly observed, Facebook’s only real offering seems to be the personal information of its users. In other words, if you’ve got a Facebook account, that doesn’t mean you’re the customer. It means you’re the product.
Of course, a lot of the scandal swirling around Facebook hinges on notions of privacy and the sharing of that personal information. It’s worth noting that, with regard to online privacy, there seems to be a big cultural difference between the U.S. and other parts of the world. Already, the EU is moving swiftly to impose stricter privacy protections, even granting its citizens “the right to be forgotten”—something much harder to come by here in the States.
But it’s not just a cultural difference—it’s also a generational one. In my role with various startups, I’ve spent a great deal of time working with people in the 24-35 age bracket. I’ve hired them, fired them, shared meals with them, and attended countless Friday afternoon beer parties with them. (I might note that the quality of beer they choose is always incredibly high—but I digress!)
Setting aside for now any questions of Facebook’s business model, I can tell you that the sharing of information is a quintessential part of this younger generation. It’s simply how they interact with the world. They don’t acknowledge boundaries or borders: They are eager and ready to share their time and their resources, in addition to their personal experiences and data points. More than anyone else I’ve encountered, these younger workers are sophisticated students of community.
Sharing information is hardwired into them, but I don’t think they have any particular loyalty to the network where they share that information. We all know how quickly the general populace moved on from MySpace, and it’s entirely possible that Facebook will meet with the same exodus. That’s because Facebook is merely a medium. It’s not a product, but a channel through which this younger generation can share their information and engage in community. But those are things they can do elsewhere—and if they need to find an alternative medium to Facebook, they will. It’s as simple as that.
By the way, I think younger consumers are much more loyal to devices than to media. They have a tangible connection to, say, their iPhone—which actually is a physical product, and thus cultivates far more loyalty than something as ephemeral as Facebook ever could. Facebook is merely a means to an end.
Because younger users feel an intense freedom to share things, they enjoy a freedom to share things elsewhere—which is not good news for Facebook. I’ll restate my suspicion that Facebook’s business model is untenable, because the only thing they can offer is personal information—and once that information goes elsewhere, Facebook has literally nothing left.
But while the younger generation’s freedom to share anything they want, in any place they want is bad news for Facebook, I think it’s good news for the world at large. Let me offer an example: You may have seen the recent collage of Sinclair Broadcasting anchors, all robotically repeating the same talking points in a spookily propagandistic sort of way.
The mind control going on in traditional media may be worrisome, but note that the video clip, which exposed this shady practice and immediately went viral, was cobbled together by some (insert low number here)-year-old who knows how to vet and discern the best online resources; someone who’s sophisticated in using online media, enough that he or she was able to immediately see the bullshit for what it was and critique it accordingly.
The sense of community that the Internet enables has trained younger generations to be much wiser and more discerning consumers of data. They have a clear sense of what information-sharing can empower them to do, and they know that they don’t especially need Facebook to connect with the broader world or to make sense of the data coming their way. I don’t think that bodes well for Mark Zuckerberg—but as for the world at large, I think we’re going to be alright.